ALAMOSA– Former District Attorney Robert Willett appeared in court on Thursday for a pre-trial conference related to charges brought against him by Alonzo Payne, former District Attorney for the 12th JD who, facing a recall election, recently resigned from office.
In the hearing, the attorney for the prosecution filed a motion requesting a one-month continuance to allow time to prepare for trial.
Defense counsel Joseph Maher objected to the motion, citing Willett not earning a paycheck for the past four months as he is on leave from his role as prosecutor in the Fourth Judicial District related to charges the defense described as “spurious and unwarranted.”
Maher also reminded the court of the imperative of the district attorney seat in the 12th judicial district being vacant. An additional one-month delay could impact Willett’s potential appointment, or, at the very least, consideration of his application to be appointed.
Judge Michael Gonzales, presiding, ruled in favor of the prosecution.
This is the second delay in court proceedings in a case that, according to a statement made by defense counsel to the Valley Courier, has strong political overtones.
Former DA Robert Willett, who had been prosecuting cases in the 12th JD for more than five years, was appointed as DA by Governor Polis following the governor’s previous appointment of DA Crista Newmyer-Olsen as district judge in 2019.
In 2020, Alonzo Payne ran against Willett in the Democratic primary and was successful. With no Republican opponent, Payne was sworn into office in 2021. Meanwhile, Willett left the valley to serve as a prosecutor for the 4th Judicial District.
During the first year, he was in office, Payne’s reputation suffered due to, as viewed by some members of the public, members of city council and officials in law enforcement, poor communication plus a lack of willingness to go to trial accompanied by a series of plea deals involving significant reduction in charges for serious felony crimes.
That reputation suffered even more when at least four cases of violations of victims’ rights were confirmed by the state-level subcommittee charged with investigating violations of the Victims’ Rights Act. The complaints were of such an egregious nature that they were referred to the governor’s office who then referred them to the Attorney’s General office for review.
AG Weiser then announced his office was conducting an investigation into the DA’s office of the 12th JD.
An effort to recall former DA Payne was initiated, facilitated by the Alamosa City Council. In February of 2022, Willett wrote a letter to the editor calling for Payne to resign. It was also rumored that Willett would be interested in running for his previous position, should the recall campaign be successful.
The day after the city council voted to facilitate a coordinated effort to launch a recall campaign, former DA Payne filed a charge of embezzlement against Willett for an incident that had allegedly occurred at least 15 months before.
In the meantime, the city of Alamosa submitted petitions to the office of the Secretary of State (SOS) containing close to a thousand more signatures than what is required by statute. Since there was no objection filed against the petitions, the governor was in the process of setting a date for the recall election when former DA Payne resigned from office.
Upon Payne’s resignation, Governor Polis issued a statement saying that his office is accepting applications from individuals interested in being appointed as DA for the valley.
At that same time, Attorney General Phil Weiser was assigned as interim district attorney for the 12th Judicial District until such time as a new district attorney can be appointed to serve.
Willett’s case has progressed slowly, first with the special appointment of Henry Solano, the District Attorney from the Third Judicial District as a special prosecutor. Defense responded with a motion for the special prosecutor to be disqualified due to a conflict of interest.
Ultimately, the point was moot as Solano withdrew from the case, prompting the re-assignment of the case to the office of Heidi McCollum, District Attorney for the Fifth Judicial District as special prosecutor.
It was the prosecutor from the Fifth Judicial District who asked for the most recent one-month continuance.
This week, Governor Polis announced the names of the individuals on the panel who will be reviewing the applications, interviewing applicants and ultimately making recommendations of finalists. In his statement, Polis said he hopes to receive “two or ideally three qualified applicants” but vows to keep the position open until the right person can be selected to take on, what AG Weiser describes as, an unprecedented situation that will take weeks, months and maybe years to restore.
Former DA Willett, who has repeatedly stated he is “legally and factually innocent”, recently confirmed with the Valley Courier that he has submitted his application for review.
Consequently, a continuance of yet another month to allow the second special prosecutor assigned to the case time to prepare for trial could pose a significant obstacle to Willett’s hopes of being considered for a position he previously held and was appointed to fill by the governor following a number of years working in the office.
In a recent interview with the Valley Courier, AG Weiser described the current status of the DA’s office following Payne’s resignation as posing a “formidable challenge” with more than 500 cases that need to be reviewed for potential prosecution and only a part-time prosecutor on staff who has since resigned.
In a recent meeting of the SLV commissioners, that number was increased by a prosecutor with the AG’s office to “about a thousand”, including more than 500 felony cases involving adults, more than 100 cases involving juveniles, a review of additional cases that were dismissed by former DA Payne but may actually warrant prosecution and new cases being submitted daily.
According to AG Weiser, district attorney offices around the state are stepping up to help out. And, last week, the first trial in “a very long time” was held in the San Luis Valley. The prosecution won the case.
Given the “formidable challenge” any individual will face should they choose to apply for the position, it is unclear how long it will take for the San Luis Valley to have a locally based, long-term district attorney serving the people.
Meanwhile, Robert Willett’s next pre-trial conference is set for August 25. At this time, his jury trial – scheduled to last only three days – is set for October 5, 6 and 7.